Bengali military leader and statesman Hussain Mohammad Ershad (born 1930) was chief of staff of the Bangladesh army and served as president of Bangladesh from 1983 to 1990.
A meeting of opposites, a combination of calculated indifference, humanistic compassion, and poetic fatalism that made him stand out as a modern-day Machiavellian prince of the Third World, Hussain Mohammad Ershad of Bangladesh epitomized both ability and ineptitude of leadership character and effectiveness. If he ushered in political stability and increased developmental activities, he was also perceived as installing a variety of politico-economic corruption schemes. In spite of a series of politically instigated and enforced general strikes he managed to maintain himself in power for eight years.
Born on February 1, 1930, in Rangpur, North Bengal (now Bangladesh), of an upper-class Bengali family, Ershad went to Carmichael College in his hometown. He graduated, however, from Dhaka University, the premier university of then East Bengal (eastern part of Pakistan; later to be called East Pakistan) in 1950. In 1952 he was commissioned into the Pakistani army, unusual for a budding poet with a university degree, since a military career was generally regarded by Bengali intellectuals as not worth pursuing. However, due credit goes to a few Bengali college-educated young men like Ershad who understood the importance of a career in the army, which historically has controlled the allocation of resources in most underdeveloped countries. In 1956 he married Begum Rashad, with whom he had a son and adopted a daughter.
With a commission as second lieutenant from the Pakistan Military Academy, he swiftly rose through the ranks of the military hierarchy. He was interned along with other Bengali officers stationed in West Pakistan at the outbreak of the 1971 liberation war and repatriated to Bangladesh in 1973 in accordance with the Simla Agreement between India's Indira Gandhi and Pakistan's Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto. His rise to higher command positions became meteoric after 1975 when Sheik Mujibur Rahman was assassinated by a handful of junior officers of the army. Soon he won the trust of President Ziaur ("Zia") Rahman (1978-1981), who brought a relative calm to a turbulent political situation, and ultimately catapulted Ershad to the position of lieutenant general and chief of staff of the army. Seen as a professional soldier without any political ambition due to his internment during the liberation war and with a flair for Bengali speech writing, he soon became the closest politico-military adviser of Zia.
The stages of Ershad's rise to become the country's most durable president were marked by certain political and military events. The first was the assassination (May 31, 1981) of the highly popular President Rahman at the hands of disgruntled army officers led by Major General A. Manzoor, a former comrade-in-arms who had once saved Zia from an unsuccessful yet bloody coup attempt. It was Ershad who now managed to diffuse a highly charged political atmosphere by crushing the coup and then giving his full support to the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The BNP wanted to observe the constitution, which stipulated the holding of an election for a new president within six months of the death of the incumbent. With Ershad's support the BNP nominee, Justice Abdul Sattar, Zia's vice president who had been serving as acting president since the assassination, won a landslide victory in a relatively free election. Ershad's support of constitutional government raised his popularity and built high hopes among the Bengali intellectuals about the future of democracy in Bangladesh.
The second stage of Ershad's rise to the presidency was marked by his assumption of power through a bloodless coup on March 24, 1982. His contention, which was vehemently challenged by his critics, was that President Sattar, being unable to govern himself due to ill health, willingly transferred power to the army, and as its chief of staff Ershad accepted the charge. The deposed President Sattar actually vocally agreed with this assumption. This gave him the authority to dissolve the cabinet and the parliament as well. It also empowered him to contain corruption, especially in high places, by putting a number of the former cabinet ministers, including his current vice president, behind bars.
Between 1982 and 1984 Ershad was involved in making preparations to legitimize his power. Following essentially the legitimizing process previously used by Zia and other military leaders in the developing world, Ershad scheduled and re-scheduled dates for elections at all levels. In spite of opposition from two major rival parties and their respective combines of lesser parties, Ershad managed to hold the Upazilla (sub-regional) elections as well as a referendum on himself in 1985, a presidential election in 1986, and a parliamentary election the same year. In the parliamentary election his newly floated political party—the Jatio Party—captured a comfortable majority of seats. This election also received a stamp of credibility when the main opposition party, the Awami League, not only contested the election, thus giving up its earlier boycott of the electoral process, but won about 30 percent of the seats in the parliament.
Having emerged as the elected president with an elected parliament in which the main opposition party had a voice, Ershad went about consolidating his power through a program of decentralization of civil and judicial administration, together with the constitutional incorporation of the role of the army in the political decision-making process. The legitimizing process used by Ershad assumed that the legitimization of political power for a military leader consists in striking a balance between the actual election and the participation of a major opposition party in it on the one hand and between the demand for reform and the reform attempted by the leader on the other. Ershad seemed to achieve an acceptable level of legitimacy in both presidential and parliamentary elections with his platform of reform in administrative, electoral, and economic areas.
However, in the parliamentary election of 1988, which was boycotted by the two largest opposition parties, his political legitimacy certainly dipped. The greatest challenge to Ershad's increasing political power began in August 1987. At that time parliament approved an amendment to the constitution changing the institution of electoral representation to allow for the armed forces to have variable representation at the regional level of government, depending on the size of the body. In April 1988 mass demonstrations broke out against the president-induced parliamentary bill, but Ershad managed to contain them by vetoing the bill. He then cleverly held another parliamentary election and pacified the voters by withdrawing martial law as he had done once before in 1986. Had the government attempted to introduce the electoral reform bill allowing representation from all professional and occupational groups to the regional government representative body (District Council) the tempers of the opposition parties' leadership, particularly that of the Awami League, perhaps would not have flared into the full-blown mass movement that in November 1987 put tremendous pressure on Ershad to transfer the reins of power to an interim government.
Increasing political pressure was also brought to bear on Ershad for the restoration of democratic institutions in Bangladesh by the U.S. Congress. A U.S. House of Representatives foreign affairs subcommittee hearing on Bangladesh was scheduled on April 14, 1988. With political finesse Ershad lifted martial law, lobbied the three witnesses who were about to testify, and invited the subcommittee chairman, Representative Stephen Solarz, to visit Bangladesh and see for himself Bangladesh's problems of democratization.
After the hearing Ershad again tried to improve the image of his cabinet, as he did in 1982 and 1983, by offering senior cabinet positions to reputable outsiders. Subsequently, one of the three witnesses and Chairman Solarz were invited to Bangladesh as state guests, resulting in positive American reactions to Ershad's efforts at reinforcing his image as a leader who was maintaining the political stability that could be very important for, at least, the partial restoration of democracy.
The incorporation of Islam as the state religion without making Bangladesh a theocracy, the efficient damage control of the devastating flood of 1988, the decentralization of the civilian administration, and an improvement in labor relations brought only a short-term stability to Bangladesh. Ershad called for an early election and on October 15, 1990, was re-elected for another four years. But the victory was hotly disputed. Ershad re-imposed martial law. He lifted the law November 10 after the parliament had granted the president and others freedom from prosecution for any actions taken under military rule. Now oppositions erupted and a new state of emergency failed to bring stability. Ershad resigned the presidency under pressure on December 4, 1990. He was placed under house arrest while he awaited trial on corruption and other charges. Meanwhile, Khaleda Zia, widow of the assassinated president General Ziaur Rahman, became the first woman prime minister of Bangladesh. At his trial the next year he was found guilty of corruption and illegal weapons possession, and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.
Additional information on Ershad and his activities can be found in Zillur R. Khan, From Martial Law to Martial Law: Leadership Crisis in Bangladesh (1984), and "Politicization of the Bangladesh Military: A Post-Independence Response to Perceived Shortcoming of Civilian Government," Asian Survey (May 1981), as well as Hussain Mohammad Ershad, A Soldier Speaks (no publisher, n.d.).